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Cory Booker and Kamala Harris: How the New Black Politician Will Take on 21st Century

Politics is changing in the black community. The current crop of high profile African-American politicians are not products of the legacy coalition of civil rights leaders, politically active black churches and the black intelligentsia network, i.e. the black political establishment. Certainly, this crop of leaders is the product of battles won by the soldiers and generals of the civil rights wars, but they are not your grandparents' or parents' politicians. They are highly educated, faith-based citizens, who oftentimes have to displace an “older generation of politicians.”

In her book, The New Black Politician, Andra Gillespie uses Newark Mayor Cory Booker to profile the new black politician. In an interview with Salon, Gillespie describes the new black politician as a “black political entrepreneurs.” Gillespie explains that black political entrepreneurs have “cross-over appeal.”

“They build political alliances that circumvent the traditional black political establishment, and deliberately work to establish more diverse appeal, outreach and power centers among the electorate” says Gillespie.

The new black politicians are game changers. They build multicultural coalitions. (We’ll ignore the part about how this strategy was first envisioned by Dr. King and later put into practice by Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.) And they may be considered outsiders in their own communities. Gillespie explains “they fit the archetype of what white audiences want to see black leaders look like, which would be very well-spoken, not talking about race all the time, and having credentials from the right schools.”

All of the leading black politicians today fit this description. They are highly accomplished, well-spoken outsiders, who do not fit the mode of the legacy civil rights era politician. Before they burst onto the national scene, they were better known outside of the black community than within it. Their cross-over appeal gives them access to funding and support from groups that in the past were not entirely supportive of black politicians. (Think Rev. Sharpton and Rev. Jackson.)

Barack Obama is the head of the class. The Ivy League-educated constitutional law professor and community organizer was virtually unknown in the black political establishment until he was tapped to run for the Senate and was selected to give the keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Allen West was a decorated war hero, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel after 20 years of military service. But until he became the Tea Party standard-bearer congressman from Florida, in the black community you couldn’t distinguish him from Adam West, the actor who played Batman on TV.

Tim Scott, the congressman from South Carolina, graduated from a faith-based Baptist college. In the past that would have meant that he would be member of one of South Carolina’s historically black churches and a mentee of Jim Clyburn, who has served in Congress for 20 years. But Scott is a Republican, and furthermore, the only black Republican in Congress since West lost his bid for reelection in Florida.

Mia Love is a Haitian-American mayor, born in Brooklyn, raised in Connecticut. She graduated with a performing arts degree from the University of Hartford and she is unknown in the large Haitian-American community in Brooklyn. She is a Mormon who lives in Utah, and recently lost her bid to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.

Kamala Devi Harris is a rising star who embodies the new black politician. California’s first multi-racial attorney general comes from a decidedly upper middle class background. Her Indian mother is a breast cancer specialist and her Jamaican-American father is a Stanford-educated economist. Yet, Harris attended the Howard University, one of the most prestigious historically black colleges in America. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Greek-lettered sorority established and incorporated by African American women. Rumors are that Harris is on the short list to replace U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Some hold out that she could be a long shot to a Supreme Court nomination should Justice Ginsburg retire during Obama’s second term.

Cory Booker was a highly educated (Stanford, Yale, Oxford) lawyer and community organizer (where have we heard that before?) before becoming the mayor of Newark, NJ. Booker went through a heated battle to Newark’s legendary civil rights era leader Sharpe James. Booker was such an outsider to the black community that the story of the mayoral race against James became the subject of Street Fighter, an Academy Award nominated documentary.

What each of these individuals represents is the type of leadership emerging from the black community. Gillespie says “they have very progressive political ambitions” and would not be “anyone who inherited their political roll.” Other leaders in this mode include former Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, and former Alabama congressman Artur Davis.

Bruce Dixon writing for the Black Agenda Report notes “a new black political class has arisen, one with only nominal connections to black voters or communities. Their careers and orientation are corporate through and through.” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick have distinguished and successful private corporate experience. Patrick was named a partner in a Boston law firm at 34 and was the general counsel for Texaco and Coca-Cola. Reed was a partner at Holland & Knight LLP, an international law firm with offices in Atlanta.

Dixon and Glen Ford, “a veteran New Jersey journalist and co-founder of Black Agenda Report” are not fans of the new black politician. They dismiss Gillespie’s assertion that the new black politician is a “technocrat with access to funding, elite connections and crossover appeal which enables them to get things done that previous generations of black politicians could not.” They believe that what is happening is that black politics is being “hijacked.” They see a gradual shift of black politics from the left to center right on issues. 

They point out that the background and policies of many of the new black politicians like Booker and Reed are noticeably center right. They even believe that Obama has been a center right politician “pursuing wars, prosecuting whistleblowers, shielding ‘banksters’, and using cruise missiles to dispatch suspected terrorists.”  In describing Reed, they say he described himself as a “civil rights lawyer”, but “forgot to mention [he was] defending corporations that violate the civil rights of actual persons.” Of Booker, they say he was an asset of the right and a product of their effort to “incubate and raise its own crop of corporate-oriented black Democrats.”

Whether you believe Gillespie or Dixon and Ford, undoubtedly there is a new generation of black politicians wholly intent on displacing the legacy black political establishment.

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